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Is Winter In Fantasy Always Evil?

Beyond Solitude by Japanese ArtistWinter is often seen as the dark and unwelcome season, and understandably so—if you live far enough from the equator it can mean longer nights, cold temperatures, icy conditions, grey gardens and leafless trees. It can be particularly harsh if you don’t have a warm home to retreat to. But the season is not without its charms: blankets of pure white snow, warm fires, hearty meals, steaming drinks, and celebrations like Christmas make it something many people look forward too. These positive aspects can have a magical, almost fictional quality to them, no doubt instilled by stories like Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, fairy and folk tales that involve winter, and the simple fact that warm fires and cosy cottages are prime arenas for imaginative storytelling.

Yet as much as winter and magic seem to go hand in hand, the season doesn’t get a good rap in fantasy. Perhaps this is because the genre often hearkens back to older traditions and ancient symbolism. As this article points out, many pre-Christian Yuletide folk tales had darker, less jolly elements and characters. Pagans saw winter as a time of darkness and death when the borders between the worlds were weakest.

Whatever the reason, a look at winter in fantasy reveals some recurring themes:

THE THREAT OF A LONG WINTER

Faeries' House by Jean-Baptiste MongeUnnaturally long winters often signify evil or imbalance in fantasy worlds. The age-old fear that the cold season might be unnaturally prolonged, or worse, permanent, is something the genre plays with regularly. What if spring never comes? What if nothing new grows and crops fail? What if the ice and snow never melt?

A classic example of this is the Age of Winter in Narnia. Although Lewis makes full use of the romantic imagery of the season in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—the lantern in the snowy forest, tea and stories beside the fire in a faun’s cosy cave, a reindeer-drawn sledge, even Father Christmas—it is still associated with the evil powers of the White Witch, and in the end it is the return of spring that is celebrated.

This idea of worlds locked in winter is not exclusive to Lewis. In A Darker Shade of Magic, White London is the bleakest and most corrupt of the three Londons, a permanently cold place bled of colour and warmth by bitter magic. In Shiver, it is not the full moon, but the cold temperatures that prompt the transformation of human into wolf, trapping werewolf characters in the bodies and minds of animals for the whole of winter—an experience that lengthens as time goes on. And of course, there’s the House Stark motto in A Game of Thrones: “winter is coming” is a constant grim reminder that a long winter and hard times await.

COLD-HEARTED CHARACTERS

Snow Queen by Justin SweetThe unforgiving cold of winter often manifests itself in the hearts and powers of villains. Characters or creatures that thrive in wintery conditions, or have the power to create them, are often not the ones we are cheering for. This is likely because of the symbolic association of cold with a lack of life and emotion, but Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen has probably also inspired many of these winter tyrants, Narnia’s White Witch included.

Winter villains are not always vindictive queens. In The Bear and the Nightingale, set in the harsh winter of northern Russia, the winter demon Frost is an evil figure kept at bay by the spirits of house and yard. In A Game of Thrones the White Walkers are revenant-like creatures from the icy regions beyond the wall who spread with the encroaching winter, led by the chilling Night King.

The association of cold with evil is also prevalent in comics, which give us supervillains like Captain Cold and Mr. Freeze (Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze from the film Batman & Robin provides some laughable cold-weather puns – here’s a compilation if you want to have a good cringe). Admittedly, some comics also feature heroes with freezing powers, such as Iceman and Polar Boy, revealing a less negative bias toward such powers.

A KILLING FROST

Storm by shenfeicThere is also the simple fact that harsh, wintery settings can pose a threat to the characters we love, or make their plight difficult. Being caught in a blinding snow storm, traipsing unprepared into freezing temperatures, or falling into icy water can be as much of a threat to our fantasy heroes as they can to us in the real world.

The Blade Itself opens with Logen Ninefingers struggling to survive in a cold, remote landscape with few supplies, demonstrating just how dangerous such conditions can be. Written in Red also begins with protagonist Meg seeking shelter in a snowstorm, freezing and desperate.

In Kushiel’s Dart, a vast, frigid wilderness helps to imprison Phèdre, because even if she manages to flee from her captors, the freezing conditions might kill her. And in Winter Be My Shield, even mages are not safe from cruel winters: being cast out means a grueling battle to survive exposure to the elements and find shelter.

SO IS WINTER EVER A POSITIVE FORCE?

Elsa Well Now They Know by Lisa KeeneSome fantasy stories do show the more positive sides of winter, and even books that focus on the hardships of the season, including most of those I’ve listed above, occasionally show its more enchanting aspects: warm fires, resilient northerners, romantic winter tales and pretty snow-covered forests. For example, in spite of the fact the cold is initially a threat to Meg in Written in Red, she eventually befriends a Winter Elemental, and the harsh snowy conditions seem to give the supernatural ‘good guys’ an advantage. Even Disney’s Frozen emphasizes the positive aspects and gives us a winter queen that isn’t evil, blaming fear and isolation rather than freezing magic itself for the problems that occur. However, these stories often still emphasize the need for balance, and for winter in moderation.

To find a fantasy that casts winter in a central and entirely positive light is more difficult, but not impossible. In Lirael, the protagonist is one of the Clayr, a mostly-female community of benevolent seers that lives on a northern glacier. The pure ice helps to focus their Sight so they can see into the future. In Crooked Kingdom and the Grisha Trilogy, the Ravkans and Fjerdens (inspired by Russian and Norse cultures) are both accustomed to cold winters and snowy conditions, and even view them with a measure of nostalgia when away from home. In The Northern Lights (a.k.a. The Golden Compass), armoured polar bear Iorek Byrnison, a ‘panserbjørn’, becomes a good friend to Lyra, and while the frigid north she travels through is perilous, it is also integral to the mysterious ‘dust’ and the connection between the worlds. Even the classic fairy tale Snow White and many of its adaptations firmly associate snow and winter with the heroine.

Journey1 by Nastasja007So winter isn’t always evil in fantasy. It can be a source of wonder and magic and beauty. It is, however, almost always a double-edged sword—something that can be dangerous to the unwary, and that is only good in balance or moderation.

You could argue then that it is simply the extreme of temperature that is portrayed as evil, and that things like hellish fire pits, burning wastelands and fire demons are also rarely positive elements in fantasy. Yet I would point out that no other season seems to have so much agency, transformational power or malice in fantasy as winter. After all, a pronouncement that “summer is coming” is unlikely to strike a sense of fear or foreboding into the hearts of fantasy readers any time soon.

Title image by Alex Konstad.

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5 Comments

  1. Amazing article, as always. Bonus points for mentioning Lirael! The setting is one of my favourite aspects of the book.

    • Nicola Alter says:

      Nice to encounter another Lirael fan! It really did have a great setting, I think one of the best things about the first part of the book was just being able to hang out in the libraries, secret rooms and passageways of the Glacier.

  2. Jack Tingle says:

    “After all, a pronouncement that “summer is coming” is unlikely to strike a sense of fear or foreboding into the hearts of fantasy readers any time soon.”
    Oh, dear. That sounds like a gauntlet hitting the floor.

  3. J says:

    I immediately think of many projections about weather and high temperatures that bring on a sense of fear and foreboding, but sadly, they’re not really fantasy.

    Personally, I have way more trouble dealing with the extreme heat and sunlight of summer than I do with a long, dark snowy winter. (Plus, I want the polar bears to have their ice and the wolverines to have enough snow to den.) But we modern real world types often have some technologies, etc. (such as access to food items high in vitamin C even in winter) to help us cope that fantasy characters may lack…

    But I do think hot deserts, while they don’t get as much play as long winters, do often show up as obstacles in fantasy. Tho they’re more a hardship to be passed thru than something that threatens to become never ending.

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